I recently purchased a universal remote control to replace the three other remotes that littered our living room. Both the remotes for the Comcast cable box and Marantz AV receiver were theoretically universal, but none really functioned as such as they were too hard to set up and too hard to use. So we did the familiar remote juggle.
Hoping to fix this I selected the Logitech Harmony One for various reasons which I’ll go into. (I should also note that Logitech is a client of frog design, where I work, but I’m writing this purely as a happy customer.)
I have long been skeptical of universal remotes as they never really seemed to be, well, universal. I’ve done a lot of research for projects over the years where I visit people in their homes to look at how they use technology and a typical scenario these days is that each TV set-up has three to five remotes layed out in front of the couch. On top of that, many houses have several TV’s, each with their own stack of cable/satellite box, DVD, and perhaps a receiver. So that can add up to a dozen or more remotes per household, all of which work differently. It’s a complete mess.
But every time I talked with someone who’d bought a universal remote, they still had the other remotes hanging around as there were one or two buttons on each they couldn’t get to work on the “universal.” I remember one gentleman who had an all-Sony set-up and his Sony universal remote couldn’t even control everything right.
But I can happily say that in the two months since we’ve had the Logitech that we have not touched our other remotes a single time. It mostly was a good experience to set up and is generally a delightful experience to use. Why?
First from an aesthetic point of view it is quite elegant in a piano-black looking finish and a sleek shape that fits well in the hand (though it is so blobby that it sometimes is a bit slippery to orient quickly, despite being rubberized on the back surface). The buttons are mostly well positioned and fall readily to hand, though the remote is very long and I have to hike it forward in my hand to use the channel buttons, which makes it a bit unbalanced. My wife in particular likes the fact that it lights up when you pick it up or jostle it, which gives it an “alive” feel. Since both of us are designers, these things matter.
Speaking of which, all keys are lit, as of course is the nice color LCD display at the top. The UI is graphically rich, and the touchscreen makes navigation simpler than the older Logitech remotes that had buttons on the side. This is closer to an iPhone, whereas the older ones were like ATMs.
While the remote itself is very slick, the UI of the PC application used to configure it is aesthetically a 90’s throwback that looks like paintings of the set-up done by the brother of a start-up’s founder. It is probably legacy from when Logitech bought (start-up) Harmony to create its own remote control division, and they haven’t got around to updating the look to the Logitech corporate style. While friendly looking it is incongruous.
Ease of use
Logitech uses an activity-based approach for doing most things which works well. If you want to watch TV, you select the activity on the screen called “Watch TV”, and so on. This makes it easy to quickly get down to the business of couch potato-ing. The remote takes care of turning on all the components needed for that activity, in optimum order, and switching any inputs/outputs as necessary, and doing things like changing the surround sound setting. This takes a few seconds sometimes, during which you have to keep the remote pointed at the components or you risk the process not finishing and you having to do things manually (the horror!). The remote is charged with a cradle and so it needs to be put back in that every day or two, depending on how much you’ve been using it.
It truly does seem to be universal. Most of my AV components are new so those are expected. What wasn’t expected was that it had both by 1980’s vintage Harman Kardon Citation 23 tuner and Acoustic Research turntable in its database. The turntable is not remote-enabled of course, being a completely manual unit, but because of the activities-oriented approach in order for me to listen to it I needed to create an activity so that the Logitech can switch the receiver to the right input.
To set up all the activities on the remote you connect it with a USB cable to a PC and then run an application (Mac or Windows) that asks you a series of questions to determine your system configuration. It’s sort of like TurboTax for your home theater. Logitech recommended setting aside about an hour for the set-up, and I think it took me a bit longer than that. Once you’ve got your initial set-up complete you try the remote out and see if everything works. If not then you go through a diagnostic to make modifications.
Most of the stuff was fairly straightforward, but two things took most of the time. The most infuriating one had nothing to do with the remote, and that was trying to figure out seemingly conflicting messages about which HDMI connector was being used by the TV (the receiver has 2 outputs). But the process was not helped by some diagnostic menus that were a bit confusing once I had to dig in and adjust some parameters. Once this was sorted the turntable presented the other challenge: the remote has no specific activity for listening to records. It turned out however, that my model of turntable was listed in the cassette deck activity! Weird.
How about downsides? It has a few
While the activities are great for most things, sometimes you need to dive in and adjust a specific function on a single device. To do this you have to step through a series of screens of on-screen buttons, which can get to be numerous (8 in the case of my receiver). The buttons are labelled in alphabetical order, which means that power cycle (forcing a device on which didn’t come on) can be several screens deep. The names of the buttons don’t always map to what they are called on the device either. Better prioritization and clustering of these would be appreciated. Luckily you don’t have to do it very often.
It is expensive at $250 list (though it can be had for much less). It’s not the spendiest remote Logitech makes, but it’s up there. It’s easily the best looking though (there’s that designer thing again), and the touch-screen makes it worth the premium. My wife had a bit of sticker shock (and I ordered with some hesitation, given my doubt about universal remotes), but now we are both completely sold on it.
By the way, an instrumental factor in me buying this remote was a user-submitted video on Amazon. It was very in-depth and really provided a good overview of how the remote would work. The reviewer Heath L. Buckmaster should get a commission from Logitech or Amazon.
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